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The Kristi Noem puppy-killing scandal, explained

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The Kristi Noem puppy-killing scandal, explained

Kristi Noem speaking at a lectern with a bright red and blue background behind her.
Gov. Kristi Noem recently wrote about killing a puppy. It’s not going over well. | Kent Nishimura/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Noem wanted to look decisive. That’s not what happened.

In the past, politicians have bragged about raising puppies as a way to seem more approachable. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, meanwhile, recently wrote about killing one.

Noem, one of the top contenders to be former President Donald Trump’s vice presidential nominee, recalled the shooting in a new book, No Going Back. In it, she says she killed Cricket, her 14-month-old wirehaired pointer, because the dog had behavioral issues and wasn’t taking to the training provided. The anecdote is included as an attempt at touting Noem’s decision-making skills, and to highlight how the governor can make “difficult, messy and ugly” choices when needed.

Instead of conveying that idea, however, Noem’s revelation has prompted a wave of backlash, angering animal rights experts and pretty much anyone who likes dogs — which is a lot of the US voting public. More than 60 million US households have at least one dog, according to the American Veterinary Medicine Association, and a 2023 study by the Pew Research Center found that 97 percent of pet owners see their companions as part of the family.

Americans’ affinity for pets — and attachment to dogs, especially — helps explain the visceral reaction Noem has faced over the news. The seriousness with which Americans approach canine welfare has helped and hurt politicians in the past. The uproar over Noem’s decision has political insiders suggesting that it could be enough to sink her chances for VP and that it will harm her political image overall.

“Trump isn’t a dog person necessarily, but I think he understands that you can’t choose a puppy killer as your pick, for blatantly obvious reasons,” an unnamed Trump ally told the New York Post.

The puppy-killing incident, explained

Noem is a second-term governor of South Dakota who is known for her embrace of gun rights, for keeping the state open during the Covid-19 pandemic, and for adhering to broadly MAGA policy positions.

In No Going Back, which is set to hit shelves in May, Noem describes Cricket as extremely energetic and not receptive to any training she was using to help Cricket become a pheasant hunting dog. Beyond that, Noem says she was concerned Cricket was potentially dangerous and that she had an “aggressive personality.” Noem cites an incident when Cricket jumped from her truck and attacked a neighbor’s chickens, killing several, as a breaking point. During that incident, Cricket also attempted to bite her, according to Noem.

Following that attack, Noem argues that she had to make the difficult choice, and ultimately led Cricket to a gravel pit and put the dog down. “It was not a pleasant job, but it had to be done,” Noem writes. Additionally, she also mentions killing a goat that was causing trouble and harassing her children.

Noem’s recounting of the incident has been met with severe backlash, with some wirehaired pointer experts arguing that Noem should have invested in more training rather than killing the dog. They noted, too, that the breed is inherently high-energy and that Cricket was likely too young to serve effectively as a hunting dog. PETA, the animal rights group, similarly lambasted Noem’s choices and said she should have either trained the dog further or rehomed Cricket rather than shooting her.

Broadly, dog lovers have expressed their horror at Noem’s decisions, with the incident also prompting a wave of reactions from Democrats and some Republicans. “Post a picture with your dog that doesn’t involve shooting them and throwing them in a gravel pit,” Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz wrote on X. “She can’t be VP now,” right-wing commentator Laura Loomer wrote in a post. “You can’t shoot your dog and then be VP.”

Noem has stood by her decision. “As I explained in the book, it wasn’t easy. But often the easy way isn’t the right way,” she wrote in a statement on X.

Amid the blowback to Noem’s admission, MSNBC Morning Joe hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough theorized Noem’s attempt to focus on the puppy killing was a bid to look strong and try to win support from the GOP’s hard-line conservative base.

Meanwhile, South Dakota Senate Democratic Majority Leader Reynold Nesiba speculated that she was trying to spin a negative story into a positive one. According to Nesiba, there have long been rumors that Noem killed this dog in a “fit of anger,” and this anecdote was a chance to frame these actions in a more positive light.

“She knew that this was a political vulnerability, and she needed to put it out there, before it came up in some other venue,” he told the Associated Press. “Why else would she write about it?

Pets have long played a role in politics

The Noem fracas is only the most recent to showcase how pets and the treatment of them have political heft.

Sen. Mitt Romney, for instance, got significant flack for forcing a dog to ride in a carrier on top of his car during a 12-hour family road trip in the 1980s. As part of his presidential run in 2012, critics frequently cited that incident to attack Romney’s character and judgment over alleged neglect of the dog and a lack of humane treatment of his family pet.

President Joe Biden has also made headlines for challenges his German Shepherd, Commander, has faced when it came to biting Secret Service and the eventual removal of the dog from the White House. His critics were quick to suggest the incidents were evidence of Biden’s lack of administrative skill. On Fox News’ The Five, for instance, host Greg Gutfeld asked viewers, “If a president can’t control his dogs that attack brave Americans, how can he govern a country that’s being invaded on both borders?”

For decades, pets have played a role in politicians’ attempts to soften their images and seem more accessible. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was known for bringing her golden retriever, Bailey, to campaign events for her presidential run, while Sen. Raphael Warnock was often accompanied by a beagle named Alvin (who was not actually his dog), when he was vying for the Georgia Senate seat. The Clintons had Socks the cat and Buddy the Labrador, the Obamas had Bo and Sunny the Portuguese water dogs, and the Bushes had Barney and Miss Beazley the Scottish terriers.

Overall, people’s ownership of pets and their treatment of them are often seen as a stand-in for character, telling voters how they would behave in leadership roles. “How we treat animals is a direct reflection of our character, both as individuals and a nation,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) previously said in a statement about animal cruelty legislation.

Noem’s new image problem, ultimately, stems from what her actions appear to say about her.

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